​​​​How do we accomplish change that lasts, especially with complex issues such as diversity, equity and inclusion? That question lies at the heart of conversations that have been occurring over the past two years in University of Washington’s Program on the Environment (PoE). PoE is an interdisciplinary undergraduate program where students study and reflect upon intersections of the environment and human societies, and the primary unit in the College of the Environment offering a Bachelor of Arts degree. Their unit’s size (5 core faculty, 2 staff, plus several pre- and post-doctoral instructors) allows everyone in PoE to meet as a whole and to focus regularly on discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion, rather than delegating DEI work to a committee.

“One of the advantages of a small community is that we can all meet to talk about diversity initiatives at least quarterly,” said PoE Director Gary Handwerk. “The common university committee structure and bureaucracy itself can be impediments to real change.”

Some of the changes so far have included major revisions to the curriculum that introduce new course requirements in sustainability and environmental justice, and embedding and threading DEI concepts throughout all courses, deeply weaving it into the fabric of environmental awareness.

PoE also collaborated with Program on Climate Change’s Becky Alexander in creating a workshop for faculty to collaborate on integrating climate justice concepts into an array of courses across the College. These conversations among faculty from seven different units helped extend the “embed and thread” model across the College. Based on positive feedback from participants, this workshop will be offered again in winter 2022 and 2023, with participation expanded to faculty from across the University. Handwerk is “optimistic that this workshop will have long-term effects and create a framework for probing and transformative conversations across the College.” 

In fall of 2021, PoE members launched an annual Autumn Seminar Series focused on Environmental Justice. Students enrolled in an associated one-credit course and participated in live sessions with speakers on Zoom, while UW and community members could tune into a livestream (later archived on the PoE YouTube page). This dual format allowed students and attendees to converse beyond the walls of a classroom and university. Enrolled students also actively participated in an online discussion forum following each presentation. This year’s series, “Indigenous Perspectives on the Environment,” brought in Indigenous voices representing a number of tribes from across the United States and Canada. 

“I liked being able to hear different people’s experiences that I might not otherwise have been able to hear,” said student Tia Vontver. “The opportunity to hear from voices not through research papers or in a textbook, but directly from them was invaluable. Traditional ecological knowledge is passed down through stories, so I’ve been able to hear many different perspectives through these speakers.”

Larger challenges, however, remain. It is one thing to feature marginalized voices weekly at a seminar, and quite another to shift the demographic diversity of the faculty or student body as a whole. Handwerk acknowledges that difficult and crucial goals like these remain ahead, but he is optimistic that efforts like those described above will help to create an infrastructure and climate conducive to recruiting and retaining a robustly diverse group of faculty and students.